Last season: 12-2, 7-1 SEC (lost to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl)
Big issue: Somewhere in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome’s lost-and-found bin is Alabama’s shield of invincibility. The Crimson Tide lost it when it blew a 21-6 second-quarter Sugar Bowl lead to Ohio State, which blasted through Bama’s defense for 42 points and 537 total yards.
Keep an eye on: The offense. Alabama lost a 1,700-yard wide receiver to the NFL in Amari Cooper, a 1,000-yard rusher in T.J. Yeldon and the SEC’s most efficient passer in Blake Sims. Lane Kiffin impressed in his first turn as offensive coordinator in 2014, but can new Crimson Tide quarterback Jake Coker prevent a fall-off after losing all that?
Outlook: Bama will, as always, be the popular pick to win the SEC, but there are issues to overcome. Not only on offense, but on defense, where leaders like Landon Collins have departed and numerous injuries and suspensions have called into question the Saban process. Talent still abounds, but a return trip to the CFP isn’t automatic.
Last season: 7-6, 2-6 SEC (beat Texas in the Texas Bowl)
Big issue: The Razorbacks generated a lot of positive buzz in 2014 despite having lost 14 of their last 16 SEC games. The buzz comes from beating LSU 17-0, Ole Miss 30-0 and old rival Texas 31-7 in the bowl. The question is whether the Razorbacks can keep improving into contender territory.
Keep an eye on: The Razorbacks are committed to the run in a way that makes even Les Miles envious. The Hogs return the nation’s only pair of 1,000-yard rushers: Jonathan Williams (1,190 yards) and Alex Collins (1,100). No one thinks Brandon Allen is a great quarterback, but he doesn’t have to be with that dynamic duo.
Outlook: The defensive line took some hits from graduation, and there are depth issues at linebacker, but there are reasons to believe the Razorbacks are an upwardly mobile program. Arkansas isn’t ready to return to the SEC Championship Game, but eight or nine wins are within reach.
Last season: 8-5, 4-4 SEC (lost to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl)
Big issue: Improving the defense. Former LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp didn’t stay unemployed long after he was fired at Florida. His job is to revamp a unit that finished ninth in the SEC in yards allowed per game (398.8) and 10th in points allowed (26.7) last season.
Keep an eye on: Expectations are sky high that Auburn junior quarterback Jeremy Johnson will be an improvement over the departed Nick Marshall. He completed 76 percent of his passes (28 of 37 for 436 yards and three touchdowns) last season. East St. John’s Duke Williams is one of the SEC’s best receivers.
Outlook: Auburn went 12-2 in Gus Malzahn’s first season and played for the BCS championship, but the Tigers could easily have been 8-5, as they were in 2014. Pressure and success at Auburn rarely mix, but if Johnson and Muschamp are as good as advertised, the Tigers could win the SEC West.
Last season: 8-5, 4-4 SEC (lost to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl)
Big issue: Quarterback. What, you thought we’d say inside linebacker? LSU coach Les Miles said he would like to see either Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris take charge of this crucial position, but no daylight has emerged between them yet. Their improvement is the lynchpin to LSU’s hopes as an SEC contender.
Keep an eye on: Leonard Fournette. As a bruising running back and kickoff returner, the sophomore from St. Augustine may be without peer. If LSU’s passing game can improve enough to back defenses out of the box and play the Tigers honest, Fournette could land an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Outlook: There are a couple of unanswered questions at defensive end, and the receivers must improve, but this is a top-10 team everywhere except … you guessed it. If LSU’s passing game can at least be average, the Tigers can win enough games to reach a CFP non-playoff bowl.
Last season: 9-4, 5-3 SEC (lost to TCU in the Peach Bowl)
Big issue: Are the 2015 Rebels more like the team that started 7-0 last season and was ranked No. 3 or the team that lost four of its last six, including blowout losses to Arkansas and TCU? Ole Miss is a blend of top-shelf talent and glaring question marks.
Keep an eye on: The Ole Miss passing game. Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell could be one of the SEC’s best, but he’s mending after a gruesome broken fibula Nov. 1 against Auburn. The Rebels will hand the quarterbacking duties to Chad Kelly (NFL great Jim Kelly’s nephew), who has a long list of off-the-field troubles.
Outlook: Stars like Treadwell, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, tight end Evan Engram, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner are the equal of other SEC powers, but depth and quarterback are huge concerns. The Rebels could contend or regress in 2015 — one hard team to handicap.
Last season: 10-3, 6-2 SEC (lost to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl)
Big issue: The Dak Attack is back. Quarterback Dak Prescott decided to return for his senior season after piling up 4,435 total yards and 41 touchdowns in a stellar 2014 campaign, much to the relief of Bulldogs fans everywhere. But there are big losses on the offensive line, at running back and on defense.
Keep an eye on: The offensive line. A veteran group gave Prescott time to throw and room to run last year, but three starters are gone, including center Dillon Day. His departure leaves State without a single center who has taken a college snap. Junior Jamaal Clayborn is the likely replacement.
Outlook: The Bulldogs look likely to make a slide this season, but it would be even worse if Prescott hadn’t returned. If State can rebuild the offensive line to a reasonable degree, the Bulldogs should at least go bowling again. This season, that may have to suffice.
Last season: 8-5, 3-5 SEC (beat West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl)
Big issue: The John Chavis vs. LSU lawsuit. On the field, Chavis should be able to improve an Aggies defense that ranked last in the conference, allowing 450.8 yards per game in 2014. He has a good cornerstone in sophomore defensive end Myles Garrett, who had an SEC freshman record 11.5 sacks last year.
Keep an eye on: Texas A&M was also 12th in the SEC in rushing yards per game (149.9). Enter former Wyoming head coach and Utah offensive coordinator Dave Christensen as offensive line coach/running game coordinator. Tra Carson leads the Aggies with 581 yards and five rushing touchdowns.
Outlook: The Aggies return eight starters on both sides of the ball with an experienced quarterback in Kyle Allen, though the watch is on to see whether signee Kyler Murray goes pro in baseball. A&M has gone from 11-2 to 9-4 to 8-5 under Kevin Sumlin, who is under pressure to reverse that trend.
Last season: 7-5, 4-4 SEC (defeated East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl)
Big issue: The offensive line. After a scary spinal cord injury ended redshirt sophomore Roderick Johnson’s career, Florida is down to six scholarship offensive linemen, none with a start to his name. Though the Gators’ 2015 class has six lineman set to arrive in the fall — including the position’s No. 1 overall prospect in Martez Ivy — SEC experience is nonexistent.
Keep an eye on: Treon Harris. Skyler Mornhinweg and Jeff Driskel transferred out, and Harris is the only quarterback on the roster with playing experience. It appears to be his job to lose behind that gutted offensive line.
Outlook: New Gators coach Jim McElwain wasn’t coy when analyzing his first team, calling the roster “insufficient” and drawing the ire of departed coach Will Muschamp. Depth and experience will be at a premium on both sides of the ball and could make it difficult for the Gators to compete in the East.
Last season: 10-3, 6-2 SEC (defeated Louisville in the Belk Bowl)
Big issue: Who takes over for Huston Mason under center? Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson is reported to have an interest, but Mark Richt was tight-lipped on Wednesday’s SEC coaches teleconference, though he did say he’d rather have four or five scholarship signal-callers than the three he currently has. Assuming Golson won’t suit up between the hedges, it’s a race between Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey — who attempted just 45 passes combined last season.
Keep an eye on: New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The football world raised an eyebrow at Richt’s hire. “But I can assure you he’s a great teacher,” Richt said. “He knows what he’s doing and has a great process of going about his business.”
Outlook: It may not matter who the quarterback is. A veteran offensive line and secondary coupled with Nick Chubb and Keith Marshall in the backfield peg the Bulldogs as an early East favorite, barring injury.
Last season: 5-7, 2-6 SEC
Big issue: Replacing Bud Dupree. That may not be fully possible, but Mark Stoops said a play-by-committee plan in his switch to a 3-4 defense will be essential to filling the gap caused by the 22nd overall pick in the NFL draft. Stoops was high on redshirt freshman Denzil Ware, also an outside linebacker, who he said will be thrust into immediate action.
Keep an eye on: The receivers. Though Stoops is hesitant to name a starting quarterback, whoever it is will have two underrated talents. Garrett Johnson and Blake Bone drew rave reviews in spring ball. That, coupled with the return of leading receiver Ryan Timmons, gives Kentucky quarterbacks plenty of options.
Outlook: The Wildcats were perhaps the SEC surprise through six games last season. A 41-3 throttling in Tiger Stadium brought them back to reality, though, starting a six-game skid to end the season. With more mature pieces returning, Stoops’ bunch could be in contention late in the season.
Last season: 11-3, 7-1 SEC (defeated Minnesota in the Citrus Bowl)
Big issue: The defensive front, a trademark of Gary Pinkel’s past two teams, is without the star names and marquee talents the Tigers have grown accustomed to rushing the passer. Third-leading tackler Harold Brantley returns, but Mizzou must compensate for the loss of Shane Ray and Markus Golden.
Keep an eye on: Is this the year Maty Mauk establishes himself as a premier SEC quarterback? The competition at the position within the conference is thin and Mauk has a full year, and SEC Championship Game appearance, under his belt. But he mixed brilliant performances with duds last season and needs to develop consistency in a league mired with mediocrity at the position.
Outlook: Two consecutive SEC East titles and still Missouri fights for attention. Recent successes show there will be no shortage of attention focused toward Columbia this season as Mauk may be the East’s best quarterback and the Tigers will challenge Georgia for a third straight trip to Atlanta.
Last season: 7-6, 3-5 SEC (defeated Miami in the Independence Bowl)
Big issue: Only five starters return from an offense that buoyed a porous defense all season. Gone are quarterback Dylan Thompson, who had a few head-scratching decisions in a topsy-turvy final season, and Steve Spurrier isn’t close to finding a replacement. Whoever takes the reigns, though, will have Pharoh Cooper, who was a 1,000-yard receiver last season.
Keep an eye on: The defense. Nine starters are back from a putrid 2014 unit that finished last in the conference in sacks and tackles and allowed more points and yards than any in program history. Spurrier tabbed his former Florida defensive coordinator Jon Hoke to revamp the unit and he’s bringing a 4-3 scheme, which Spurrier said the team has picked up remarkably quickly.
Outlook: Spurrier is nothing if not matter-of-fact, bluntly claiming the 2014 season to be “very mediocre” on Wednesday. Unless he finds a quarterback and the defense shores up quickly, the head ball coach could see similar results in 2015.
Last season: 7-6, 3-5 SEC (defeated Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl)
Big issue: Can Josh Dobbs take control of the offense? He split time with Justin Worley last season and couldn’t get a firm hold on the job. Now it’s his team to command. With an improved defense, the impetus is on Dobbs to be a junior leader.
Keep an eye on: Sophomore running back Jalen Hurd. He won’t get the Leonard Fournette/Nick Chubb fanfare, but after an 899-yard freshman campaign, Hurd will be a handful for any team he faces. Add in the mobility of Dobbs and the emergence of classmate Alvin Kamara, and the Volunteers rushing attack could be among the best in the conference.
Outlook: The turnaround in Rocky Top is coming quicker than most expected, and the Vols have enough in place this season to challenge for a title in a wide-open division. Dobbs’ evolution is crucial, and defensive improvement could lead a surprise trip to Atlanta.
Last season: 3-9, 0-8 SEC
Big issue: Who plays quarterback? Patton Robinette is gone, as is former LSU backup Stephen Rivers. There are a plethora of deficiencies in Nashville, but until one of the three young passers (Johnny McCrary, Shawn Stankavage and Wade Freebeck) steps up, not much will be settled for the Commodores.
Keep an eye on: Derek Mason pulling double duty. Mason said he interviewed several people for the vacant defensive coordinator position, including an NFL assistant, before settling on the perfect candidate: himself. He’ll bring in a 3-4 scheme, a difficult transition, while trying to juggle head coaching duties.
Outlook: Year 1 of post-James Franklin was a disaster. With such turnover and no clear answer at quarterback, Year 2 is shaping up to be the same way. The East is wide open, no doubt, but the door may already be closed for Vanderbilt.